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Book Review


Eric Vanhaute, World History: An Introduction. Translated by Linda Weix. London and New York: Routledge, 2013. Pp. ix+182.


     Originally published in Dutch in 2012, Eric Vanhaute's World History: An Introduction provides a concise, thematic guide to the content, concepts, and great debates of world history. In doing so, Vanhaute joins a number of recent works with similar aims.1 But although Vanhaute covers familiar ground, he manages to do so in often provocative ways—and in a manner that will be helpful to teachers of world history as they prepare their courses.

     One of the book's central themes is the utility of world history. Whereas some historians prefer to speak of studying the past "for its own sake" or "on its own terms," Vanhaute unapologetically stresses the value of world history for understanding and tackling today's problems—those of environmental degradation and global inequality in particular. "The most important reason to study world history today," he writes, "is to gain access to the historical background of our contemporary, globalized world. Now that we experience how complex and connected our world is, we also realize that regional and national histories are no longer sufficient to comprehend the world around us" (9). He later elaborates that world history "often makes a contemporary, moral claim," and is important as an area of study "not so much for global knowledge, but for learning to employ a global view." One obtains the latter, he explains, "not by tallying up national or regional events, but by zooming out so that you see the world and the way human contacts and interactions have taken place in one large image rather than in fragmented images" (14). "Choices," he notes elsewhere, "are always determined and restricted by the location of the human being or group of people within the entire human community. In world history, learning that attitude and dealing with it critically are essential" (13). These are crucial premises in the field, and one merit of this book is that it brings them together in a succinct, explicit way that will help teachers sharpen and focus their thinking as they create and revise courses.

     The organization of the book also makes it a convenient reference for teachers. After an introductory chapter on the nature of world history, Vanhaute offers nine thematic chapters that each explore a key topic. These are as follows: "A Human World" (on human evolution and demographic history); "A Natural World" (on ecology, energy, and development); "An Agrarian World" (on agriculture); "A Political World" (on mini-systems, empires, and states); "A Divine World" (on civilizations and world religions); "A Divided World" (on "the west" and "the rest"); "A Global World" (on globalization); "A Polarized World" (on development, poverty, and inequality); and "A Fragmented World" (on scales and levels of analysis in the study of world history). By pursuing big questions and doing so with an eye to the present, these chapters will help teachers who are looking to move away from "coverage" and toward engaging students in crucial debates. The book ends with a helpful thematic bibliography, which includes an annotated section on professional associations, journals, and websites of relevance to world history.

     Although World History: An Introduction has many strengths, it is a rather untidy text. Given that it is a translation, this is a bit more understandable, but it remains a distraction. For example, when titles are referenced in the text, some are appear in their original language (e.g., Braudel, Le Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l'époque de Phillipe II), while others are translated into languages other than English (e.g., Lenin, Der Imperialismus als höchstes Stadium des Kapitalismus). A more substantial issue is that the text is thin on citations. While this is to be expected, given the survey nature of the book, it is a problem for teachers who might want to use a particular statistic—"Approximately 80 percent of the total environmental impact is caused by the richest 25 per cent of the world population" (60)—but are left with no source to consult and, as a result, wary of including it their lessons.

     Despite these shortcomings, World History: An Introduction is a handy book. It will provide teachers wading into a first semester of world history—or refining an existing course—much food for thought. They will find conceptual discussions about what they are doing that are framed in the broadest terms. Vanhaute offers a useful reminder, for instance, that the "world" in world history "does not stand for the physical notion of ‘earth,' but for all of humankind, human society, and the outcome of human choices in an unfamiliar, natural context. In other words, world is not a thing, it is a human activity" (13). They will also find guidance in breaking down individual topics for their students, for Vanhaute provides lists of key ideas, positions, and questions that seem ready-made for the classroom. An example is his summary of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations, which he follows with key questions: "To what degree can one classify the world population of the twenty-first century into quasi-homogenous, geographically delineated groups that are based on religion and culture? To what degree can all conflicts be reduced to a collision course between these civilizations, and what about the conflicts related to economic resources like oil, water and raw materials? How does Huntington's divided world relate to the global capitalist economy of the twenty-first century?" (94). Vanhaute is not, of course, doing anything new in listing such questions (which he follows with a more sympathetic summary of Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence). But by bringing them and others together in this succinct book, he has rendered teachers of world history—particularly the new ones, overwhelmed by the scope of their new subject—a useful service.

Mark Soderstrom is an assistant professor of history at Aurora University in Aurora, IL. His primary research interest is Imperial Russian history, and he teaches a range of courses on Russian, East Asian, and world history, as well as a methods course for teachers of history at the secondary level. He can be contacted at



1 These include Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past (New York: Palgrave Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 2003); Peter N. Stearns, World History: The Basics (London and New York: Routledge, 2011); and Douglas Northrop, ed., A Companion to World History (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).



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